I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Miami based artist Christina Pettersson, back from her winter sojourn to Saratoga Springs, New York. Pettersson was one of only a couple of visual artists during her stay at Yaddo, a residency located on a 400-acre estate, which is over 100 years old. We met up to stroll to her studio and chat about her Yaddo experience and her new powerful drawing, The Sentinel, which was conceived there.
GRETCHEN WAGONER: Miami is known for its weather, especially the idyllic winter season when the population of our city increases due to all of the northeasterners taking refuge from the blustery cold. You were accepted into a residency at Yaddo during your months of choice, January and February. Can you talk about why you wanted to go to upstate NY in the dead of winter and what relevance this time of the year had on the work you were making?
CHRISTINA PETTERSSON: I definitely need the contrast. All these sluggishly warm days make me crave the finality of that "dead of winter" landscape. It's so absolute, so clean and silent. I swear I can hear myself think better. Of course, eventually I remember the pleasures of bare feet and barbecues and boats, and want to go south again. It must be the dual personality of being born in Sweden and raised in Miami. Over a lifetime I have developed a unique love of both environments.
GW: Unlike other residencies that are specifically geared towards visual artists, Yaddo includes music composers, filmmakers, performers, and writers. Your past work has exposed your love of literature, often taking a story and changing the ending in a drawing, or translating on paper a deceased writer’s grave or a brick from their home. How important was it for you to be in a residency amongst writers? Did any collaborations or future collaborating plans emerge?
CP: Yaddo is a storied place, especially for writers. Countless famous figures have graced its rooms. I was so excited to be among that history, and even more so to be among the living. I met people I hope to keep as friends for a long time, and who will no doubt influence my work and my life, and yes, with whom I hope to collaborate with in the future.
GW: You worked on one large drawing during your time at Yaddo, an odalisque, dripping in jewels, reclining on a polar bear skin rug. In the background is a pastoral scene juxtaposed with melting ice caps in the foreground. Can you tell me a bit about your ideas behind this piece? How much of a concept did you have prior to arriving at Yaddo and what did the experiences, environment, and resources of Yaddo bring out in this piece?
CP: When I arrived at Yaddo, all I had was this idea of a voluptuous woman on a polar bear rug, burned into my brain. I found myself spending a lot of time in Yaddo's art library, visiting all my old friends, so to speak. Up until now, though I was well educated in it, and loved it dearly, I have been loath to make direct use of art history's imagery and symbolism. I had to leave it behind to make my own stories. But for the first time, I feel not only equipped enough to take it on, but rather thrilled to play in it. The odalisque is such a great theme in art history, a symbol of total voluptuousness, beauty, pagan romance and excess. I want those ideas to be central in my drawing too, but as a way to expose the underlying destruction the desire for luxury often creates. The polar bear, literally under her, is the tragic beast of a disappearing world. Climates are colliding, and much is lost in the battle. The piece is called The Sentinel, but she is playing both sides here, both the destroyer and the protector.
Also, on a more primal level, I wanted to glorify drawing itself, take on all those old dead men, and say, "I have no need for painting. I can do it with drawing alone."
GW: The amount of work you completed in five weeks is impressive; how long in “Miami time” would it have taken you to get as far as you did in this drawing?
CP: Easily twice as long! That is the truly unique thing about a residency, especially one like Yaddo. It not only provides space, and every meal, which is a huge timesaver, but only has an internet connection in one communal space, and is isolated enough that there's almost nowhere to go. I found myself standing in the studio thinking, "It's only 11 a.m.? It's only 2 p.m.?" I've already accomplished more than I would all day at home. It makes you seriously evaluate how you spend your time, and what matters most. I can't think of any other way to have this experience. It's incredibly fortunate that we can access these places.
GW: You use yourself as the model for the subjects in your life size scaled work. What are the reasons behind this?
CP: It mostly stems from the ease of it. I'm always available. They're not meant to be self-portraits, so they aren't much about me. I want to be a storyteller and a stand-in for the viewer, not a historian. The narratives are prophecy. Additionally, over time, using one figure allows a flow from one drawing to the next. I have certainly thought about bringing in other figures, and eventually will, but at this point it would be a very conscious decision. For now I can use myself without actually having a reason or obligations.
GW: Do you hope to do more residencies soon? Is there one on the top of your residency wish list?
CP: Yes! I would love to do about one a year. I just applied for a two month residency in Norway that would be amazing, but I have a big list, and hope to be able to experience lots of them.
GW: Thank you for the studio visit Christina, and for taking the time to speak with me about your work in progress.
CP: Thank you!
~ Gretchen Wagoner
Images: The Sentinel (in progress-detail) 2011, 70 x 90 inches. Photographed by Eli Peck; Yaddo studio view, photograph courtesy of Christina Pettersson; The Sentinel (in progress), 2011. Photographed by Eli Peck.